Archive for May, 2013

Remembering China # 3: Dong Ting

May 26, 2013
Dong Ting

Dong Ting, Wuxi

Before arriving in China, I dreamed that the country consisted of beautiful, whispering bamboo groves, full of quaint little tea pavilion’s and lakes. The above photo was the reality.

This photo was taken in Dong Ting – our home while we lived in China. We could never actually tell what it’s name was, as it was either Xisan (or XiShan) district, or Dong Ting. Dong Ting we were told at one point, was where the local government of the district was – and there was in fact a government building of some description several blocks away – but in China, unless you speak Chinese (and possibly even then) – nothing is every completely certain or assured.

The above street was very typical for most cities we travelled through. Rows of low-rise apartment buildings, and beneath them, small, garage-like shops, which had anything from scooter/bike repair shops, to restaurants, to general stores. Many of these shops were permanently dark, making you think they were closed, when in fact they were only saving power. At night, they were generally only illuminated by the most minimal lighting possible.

These stores tended to change on a very regular basis. The buildings above them were often dirty – just like the roads and the sidewalks. The smog in the air often collected in the grout between tiles, or in the sills above windows, so that the grime would streak down the windows themselves.

The sidewalks were always small, intricate bricks – the type of thing that could only be put down in such quantities in a country like China, where there were no shortage of hands to do the work. Because people like to ride their scooters on the sidewalks as often as the road, many of the bricks were broken.

If you look closely, on the left hand sidewalk there’s a brick sticking out  – somehow when it’s been laid, it’s just been put in around the wrong way. All the bricks around it moved closer to fill the void. I feel quite close to this particular brick, as I stubbed my toe on it no less than 3 times – and each time bloody hurt thanks!

You’d often see manhole covers in the middle of the road open, with a few sticks of bamboo jammed into them to warn people. The same with potholes – when they got too deep – the old bamboo stick method worked a treat.

Behind these rows of buildings were often more rows of buildings. They are generally placed so that they form a compound of sorts. In the middle of them, you’d find a few courtyards, often with outdoor gym equipment in them. At night, many of the Chinese would gather to socialise, dance and do exercises. In the morning, these places were for tai chi.

Remembering China # 2: Beijing beer

May 21, 2013

Talking about the World Nomad’s travel scholarship prize in Beijing had me thinking about Beijing itself. What an amazing place – really. When you think of China, there are two main places that instantly come to mind (well other than the Great Wall) – Beijing and Shanghai – two cities that could not possibly be more different. While Shanghai is the true land of hyper-lit skyscrapers, Beijing is not really a city in the traditional sense. There is a CBD area, and there are some large buildings, but Beijing covers a large, sprawling area.

Roof lions

The roof kitties observe

Beijing is rich in culture and history, but is also spread out in such a way that it’s difficult to take it all in in a glance. If you go to Jingshan Park behind the Forbidden City, which has a large hill that was actually made from the soil dug out of the Forbidden City’s moat, you can see exactly how extensive the city is – and in fact, it’s probably the place to go if you want the best view of the Forbidden City itself.

Every place you go is flat and long. When you exit the Tienanmen Square train station – finding your way to the square is a challenge that involves a lot of walking. Going from the square past the Forbidden City, down to the Wangfujing shopping street – or the famous night food market behind it – walk walk walk.

Beijing to me though, is most fondly remembered by the tiny rooftop bars that were among the cities famous hutongs (courtyard homes). One such bar we had to ourselves, sitting amongst a large assortment of roof lions and tiny potted plants. From this rooftop, we had a great view of the Bell and Drum towers, and could simply unwind. Downstairs, within the hutong itself, the owner, a young and chic Beijing girl, would play cruisy Norah Jones and other western beats.

Down the road from this place, bordering the courtyard between the two gigantic towers, another tiny bar, marked out by Nepalese prayer flags. Go here, grab a tsingtao and nibble on nuts while you watch the locals play chess and do their dusk exercises.

As the sun began to go down, amongst the hutong’s you’ll find an array of street barbeques suddenly making an appearance. Men armed with hair dryers, lay an assortment of skewered meat over thin grills, then blow them with the dryers to speed up the process. Grab a seat, order 30 lamb skewers and a cucumber salad with a pair of matching tsingtao’s. This place is heaven.

My attempt at a bodgy map of the area. You can see the drum and bell towers at least!

My attempt at a bodgy map of the area. You can see the drum and bell towers at least!

Remembering China # 1: Where it all began

May 18, 2013

I recently entered the World Nomad’s 2013 travel writing scholarship contest, and while I didn’t win – or hell, I didn’t even get shortlisted, god how I wanted to. The prize this year was 2 weeks in Beijing under the mentorship of various travel writers in what would have been something of a dream come true experience. Of course, actually winning a heavily subjective competition like this one is comparable to your chances of winning the lotto – I mean, who the hell really knows what they’re looking for year to year. Anyhow, I didn’t win, and I have moved on – I promise!

While I was spending time on the competition, it had me reminiscing again of my own time spent in China. I went through my old photos, many of which I hadn’t looked at for many years now, and have decided to pull a few out and write about them. While living in China – stupidly – I didn’t recognize the need to have a really good camera, and so while many of our shots reflect our experience, I am still kicking myself today that I didn’t take over a proper digital SLR – the night shots we missed out on – gah!

This first shot is particularly average, but it’s also very meaningful for me. It was one of a handful of shots we took just after arriving, while heading back to the school in a minivan. This shot shows the real China – a China that we did not expect. Deep down we knew that it would be a heavily industrialized, very smoggy environment, but we also were still trying to fool ourselves that we would in fact be driven through bamboo forests, past teahouses and pagodas until at our final destination we were served delicious steaming dumplings by none other than a panda.

The reality? This photo:



It was winter and just beyond some unseasonably heavy snowfalls. It does not always snow in Wuxi, but this year it had. In fact in 2008, China experienced such heavy snowfalls that it caused chaos across the country – made all the worse by the fact that half the population was on the move for Chinese New Year. It bordered on disaster.

Anyhow, for us newbies to the country, it meant that the country was freezing cold, both foggy and smoggy, and universally brown. All the foliage was flattened and brown. The grass – brown. The trees – not that there were any real trees – more shrubs, were partially bare and all brown.

It was grey and desolate and a depressing landscape. It was also eye-opening in its sheer size. Everywhere we looked were bamboo scaffold clad buildings such as in the image. On the horizon, random high-rise apartments and factories.

As we travelled across this landscape, through lines of identical blue trucks and flat-bed vehicles laden with yellow helmeted workers, we began to question if we had made a mistake coming here.

All Asian’s look the same

May 13, 2013

Actually, no they don’t. That title is a blatant racist stereotype – however in the case of the 2013 Miss Korea beauty pageant, it is funnily enough the case.

The below image has gone viral (for the record, I absolutely hate this term), cycling through all 20 contestants and damn if they don’t look identical. Why you ask? Plastic surgery.

I have a bit of a confession to make. Over the past year or two, I’ve developed a bit of an addiction to K-Pop. Yes I am about 20 years older than the target market, and a lot hairer, but hey, I like Asian music ok! It was also a bit of a Sunday morning ritual to wake up, and watch SBSPopAsia on SBS while I ate my breakfast and relaxed with a coffee.

Initially I was simply amused by the randomness of these South Korean pop stars. The first real appeal was the fact that these were not simply boy or girl bands, these were EPIC boy or girl bands – think a boy band with like THIRTEEN members (hello Super Junior) – and the same deal with the girl groups.

K-Pop was initially one of those styles of music that makes you laugh because it was simply so naff. Here were these polished South Koreans trying to emulate African American rappers, and your standard oldschool white boybands – but just didn’t seem to get it.

Flash forward until present, and somewhere along the line, familiarity has somehow evolved into a form of liking it, and ok ok I admit it, I like it!

Though as I marvelled at these squeaky clean, sparkling South Koreans, I often wondered – are they simply a good looking race? Is there just a higher proportion of cutesy looking females in that particular peninsula than most other parts of Asia? The answer is no – the answer is in fact, plastic  surgery.

The Miss Korea 2013 contestants

Plastic surgery in South Korea is rampant. It’s like the problem with ultra-thin western supermodels influencing the look of teenagers –  but in South Korea, it’s plastic surgery.
The most popular form of surgery is initially the double-eyelid – which is essentially creating a second lid by lifting up the original lid – giving the effect of two small eyelids. While my description of it is somewhat freaky, in reality, it simply makes their eyes larger/wider, while still maintaining that distinctive Asian look.  

When I think about how many people in China wore glasses, and how they go to lengths to exercise their eyes in class and so on due to widespread vision issues – I actually wonder if this double eyelid surgery might help (but I of course are no doctor).

But double eyelid surgery is just the beginning. For those with cash (or parents who want a kid that’s better looking), it then evolves into adjusted noses, chins, cheeks, you name it. The end result is Miss Korea 2013 – where every contestant almost looks identical.

On one side South Korea has issues with a very naughty neighbour. On the other – a new generation of younglings thinking they’re ugly in comparison to their plastic perfect pop idols. And what is the solution? God only knows at this point. K-Pop is going through the roof worldwide – having already exploded through Japan many years ago. Plastic surgery is not going anywhere, not anytime soon, anyway.

Girls Generation, 100% adjusted

All hail, xiaolongbao!

May 11, 2013

Since we’ve moved into the city, we’ve had a bit of trouble finding ‘Box Hill’ style dumplings. By that I mean a cheap and nasty place, full of Chinese, and absolutely delicious dumplings.

The cheap and nasty refers to the decor. I learned a long time ago, that a dumpy place isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The Chinese in particular, are very practical when it comes to eating out. They do so on a regular basis and so their standard eateries don’t have to be dressed up and impressive. Western diners (aka Australian’s) tend to dine out on a less frequent basis, largely because of the cost. Our restaurants range from the very expensive and therefore quite posh, to your standard fast-food places, but rarely will you find a western restaurant that’s like the lower quality eateries that populate so much of Asia.

Because on the whole, western people aren’t familiar with nightly dining out, or eating in a cheap and nasty looking place, they tend to avoid them, in which case you’ll often find them full of Asians. The Asian’s of course are completely familiar with this concept – they’re not eating there for the environment, they’re eating there for the food – the cheap food.

In a typical cheap and nasty looking place – such as those found in Box Hill, Victoria, you’ll often find them full of Chinese. This also usually means that the food is closer to what you’ll find overseas – and for any travelers out there – us people whose eyes light up at the thought of the cheap delicious treats often found on the roadside, these places are awesome.

There is one place in Box Hill which used to be a fairly Chinese dominated haunt (though was never dumpy…well unless you go into the bathrooms…) but is now usually full of us whities. It used to go by the name of DC Dumpling, but re-invented itself as Dumpling Specialist. One of the side-effects of becoming too local Australian, is that the quality of the food goes down, often matched by the price rising. There’s a very big difference between a superb and a terrible dumpling. With a dumpling heavy menu, Dumpling Specialist still thankfully offers some of the most delicious dumplings I have had anywhere.

In particular (and the point of this post -heh) their xiaolongbao’s. I have found over the years, that some restaurants might offer the world on their menu, but they only really excel at certain items. You’re better off ordering pan fried dumplings at Ramen King and RaRamen in Box Hill as an example – their steamed variants being in cases that are too thick, and when steamed, arriving at the table watery.

Dumpling Specialist nails the steamed dumplings – and their flagship in my opinion? Xiaolongbao. I *love* xiaolongbao. They are so utterly delicious – the kind that make you a bit feral and defensive over how many are remaining in the basket  – or the kind that simply give you pause when you eat them, as their exquisite flavour explodes in your mouth.  Quite frankly, they are the bomb.

Xiaolong actually translates to ‘small steaming basket’ referring to how these dumplings are served, while bao refers to the bun in which they arrive. They’re also known as soup dumplings, not because they are served in soup, but because sealed inside the bun is a tasty broth – along with your typical hunk of meat.

It takes great patience not to immediately start eating them when they first arrive, steaming and enticing. But your best bet is to wait several minutes, as what’s contained inside those sealed bao’s can only be described as nuclear. The Chinese bite their buns on the side, then drink the broth before eating them. Personally, I still find this ends in burned lips. I tend to leave mine in the basket until they’ve cooled down a bit (usually chowing down on whatever else is on the table), then plop the entire xiaolongbao into my mouth so I can enjoy the flavour in one immense hit.

The morale of this story is simple: xiaolongbao rock, and you need them in your belly, now!

xiaolongbao @ Dumpling Specialist, Box Hill, Vic

xiaolongbao @ Dumpling Specialist, Box Hill, Vic

China, take our money!

May 3, 2013

I read this interesting article earlier which discussed how Hollywood is beginning to edit its movies in order to try and capture the Chinese dollar. It seems that everyone’s chasing those same dollars. Every second day there’ll be an article about the boom in Chinese tourism, or China suddenly exploding into our music markets, or car markets, or you name it whatever else. Of course that’s when they’re not purchasing all of our raw materials, or entire continents (hello Africa!).

This particular article mentioned Iron Man 3 which reminds me of the time I saw Iron Man 1 when it was first released, at a local cinema in Wuxi, China.

My memories of the movie – beyond the fact half of the people present were not watching the movie but pissing around on their mobile phones – was that it was edited in a really bizarre way.

During the opening scenes, Tony Stark was captured in the desert and forced to work on his first Iron Man armour suit. These scenes were choppy and random and leapt from one thing to another – sometimes mid-dialogue. It was not until sometime later that I discovered that this was not the editors trying to be funky with some kind of ADD-inducing new method – but Chinese editing.

There had been no attempt to make the removed scenes seamless. Anything deemed inappropriate was simply cut. The end result was a jumpy, stuttery series of segments that truly baffled.

Early into the movie, Tony Stark brought a reporter back to his room to sleep with. The sex scene wasn’t shown in the main movie other than the two of them kissing on the bed, then rolling over and falling onto the floor. This scene too was edited out.

The final scene I recall missing (and I am sure there were others mixed in there) was during the climactic battle between Iron Man and…whoever that other armoured baddie was. The two jetted super high into the air until Iron Man’s power source was disabled and he fell to the earth. When he fell, he landed in a small crater – nothing really amazing here – yet this fall was edited out. I really can’t understand this omission.

The moral of this story? There isn’t one – other than don’t go and watch movies in Chinese cinemas if you’re one of those people who can’t handle other people talking during a flick (aka all of us).

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